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Facebook’s ad transparency experiment can still mislead users on advertiser’s identity, review finds

A man is silhouetted against a video screen with a Facebook logo in this photo illustration on Aug. 14, 2013.

Dado Ruvic/REUTERS

Jennifer Valentino-DeVries is a reporter for ProPublica, an independent, New York-based non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.

Shortly before a Toronto City Council vote in December on whether to tighten regulation of short-term rental companies, an entity called Airbnb Citizen ran an ad on the Facebook news feeds of a selected audience, including Toronto residents over the age of 26 who listen to Canadian public radio. The ad featured a photo of a laughing couple from downtown Toronto, with the caption, "Airbnb hosts from the many wards of Toronto raise their voices in support of home sharing. Will you?"

Placed by an interested party to influence a political debate, this is exactly the sort of ad on Facebook that has attracted intense scrutiny. Facebook has acknowledged that a group with ties to the Russian government placed more than 3,000 such ads to influence voters during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

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Facebook has also said it plans to avoid a repeat of the Russia fiasco by improving transparency. An approach it's rolling out in Canada now, and plans to expand to other countries this summer, enables Facebook users outside an advertiser's targeted audience to see ads. The hope is that enhanced scrutiny will keep advertisers honest and make it easier to detect foreign interference in politics.

ProPublica, an independent, New York-based non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest, used a remote connection, called a virtual private network, to log into Facebook from Canada to see how this experiment is working. The analysis suggests that despite some improvement, the measure provides far less openness than is sought by critics who say online political advertising is a Wild West compared with the tightly regulated worlds of print and broadcast.

The new strategy – which Facebook announced in October, just days before a U.S. Senate hearing on the Russian online manipulation efforts – requires every advertiser to have a Facebook page. Whenever the advertiser is running an ad, the post is automatically placed in a new section – labelled Ads – of the Facebook page, where any users in Canada can view it even if they aren't part of the intended audience.

Facebook has said that the Canada experiment, which has been running since late October, is the first step toward a more robust setup that will let users know which group or company placed an ad and what other ads it's running. "Transparency helps everyone, especially political watchdog groups and reporters, keep advertisers accountable for who they say they are and what they say to different groups," Rob Goldman, Facebook's vice-president of ads, wrote before the launch.

While the new approach makes ads more accessible, they're only available temporarily, can be hard to find and can still mislead users about the advertiser's identity, according to ProPublica's review. The Airbnb Citizen ad – which was discovered via a ProPublica tool called the Political Ad Collector – is a case in point. Airbnb Citizen professed on its Facebook page to be a "community of hosts, guests and other believers in the power of home sharing to help tackle economic, environmental and social challenges around the world." Its Facebook page didn't mention that it is actually a marketing and public-policy arm of Airbnb, a for-profit company.

The ad was part of an effort by the company to gain support as it fought rental restrictions in Toronto. "These ads were one of the many ways that we engaged in the process before the vote," Airbnb said. However, anyone who looked on Airbnb's own Facebook page wouldn't have found it.

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Airbnb told ProPublica that it is clear about its connection to Airbnb Citizen. Airbnb's web page links to Airbnb Citizen's web page, and Airbnb Citizen's web page is copyrighted by Airbnb and uses part of the Airbnb logo. Airbnb said Airbnb Citizen provides information on local home-sharing rules to people who rent out their homes through Airbnb. "Airbnb has always been transparent about our advertising and public engagement efforts," the statement said.

Political parties in Canada are already benefiting from the test to investigate ads from rival groups, said Nader Mohamed, digital director of the New Democratic Party. "You're going to be more careful with what you put out now, because you could get called on it at any time," he said. Mr. Mohamed said he still expects heavy spending on digital advertising in upcoming campaigns.

After launching the test, Facebook demonstrated its new process to Elections Canada. The agency recommended adding an archive function, so that ads no longer running could still be viewed, said Melanie Wise, Elections Canada's assistant director for media relations and issues management. The initiative is "helpful" but should go further, Ms. Wise said.

Some experts were more critical. Facebook's new test is "useless," said Ben Scott, a senior adviser at the think tank New America and a fellow at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship in Toronto who specializes in technology policy. "If an advertiser is inclined to do something unethical, this level of disclosure is not going to stop them. You would have to have an army of people checking pages constantly."

More effective ways of policing ads, several experts said, might involve making more information about advertisers and their targeting strategies readily available to users from links on ads and in permanent archives. But such tactics could alienate advertisers reluctant to share information with competitors, cutting into Facebook's revenue. Instead, in Canada, Facebook automatically puts ads up on the advertiser's Facebook page, and doesn't indicate the target audience there.

Facebook's test represents the least that the company can do and still avoid stricter regulation on political ads, particularly in the U.S., said Mark Surman, a Toronto resident and executive director of Mozilla, a non-profit internet advocacy group that makes the Firefox web browser. "There are lots of people in the company who are trying to do good work. But it's obvious if you're Facebook that you're trying not to get into a long conversation with Congress," Mr. Surman said.

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Facebook said it's listening to its critics. "We're talking to advertisers, industry folks and watchdog groups and are taking this kind of feedback seriously," Rob Leathern, Facebook director of product management for ads, said in an e-mail. "We look forward to continue working with lawmakers on the right solution, but we also aren't waiting for legislation to start getting solutions in place," he added.

The company declined to provide data on how many people in Canada were using the test tools.

Facebook is not the only internet company facing questions about transparency in advertising. Twitter also pledged in October before the Senate hearing that "in the coming weeks" it would build a platform that would "offer everyone visibility into who is advertising on Twitter, details behind those ads, and tools to share your feedback." So far, nothing has been launched.

Facebook has more than 23 million monthly users in Canada, according to the company. That's more than 60 per cent of Canada's population but only about 1 per cent of Facebook's user base. The company has said it is launching its new ad-transparency plan in Canada because it already has a program here called the Canadian Election Integrity Initiative. That initiative was in response to a federal government report, Cyber Threats to Canada's Democratic Process, which warned that "multiple hacktivist groups will very likely deploy cybercapabilities in an attempt to influence the democratic process during the 2019 federal election." The election integrity plan promotes news literacy and offers a guide for politicians and political parties to avoid getting hacked.

Compared to the U.S., Canada's laws allow for much stricter government regulation of political advertising, said Michael Pal, a law professor at the University of Ottawa. He said Facebook's transparency initiative was a good first step but that he saw the extension of strong campaign rules into internet advertising as inevitable in Canada. "This is the sort of question that, in Canada, is going to be handled by regulation," Prof. Pal said.

Several Canadian technology policy experts who spoke with ProPublica said Facebook's new system was too inconvenient for the average user. There's no central place where people can search the millions of ads on Facebook to see what ads are running about a certain subject, so unless users are part of the target audience, they wouldn't necessarily know that a group is even running an ad.

If users somehow hear about an ad or simply want to check whether a company or group is running one, they must first navigate to the group's Facebook page and then click a small tab on the side labelled "Ads" that runs alongside other tabs such as "Videos" and "Community." Once the user clicks the "Ads" tab, a page opens showing every ad that the page owner is running at that time, one after another.

The group's Facebook page isn't always linked from the text of the ad. If it isn't, users can still find the Facebook page by navigating to the "Why am I seeing this?" link in a drop-down menu at the top right of each ad in their news feed.

As soon as a marketing campaign is over, an ad can no longer be found on the "Ads" page at all. When ProPublica checked the Airbnb Citizen Facebook page a week after collecting the ad, it was no longer there.

Because the "Ads" page also doesn't disclose the demographics of the advertiser's target audience, people can only see the data on ads that were aimed at them and were on their own Facebook news feed. Without this information, people outside an ad's selected audience can't see to whom companies or politicians are tailoring their messages.

ProPublica reported last year that dozens of major companies directed recruitment ads on Facebook only to younger people – information that would likely interest older workers, but would still be concealed from them under the new policy. One recent ad by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was directed at "people who may be similar to" his supporters, according to the Political Ad Collector data. Under the new system, people who don't support Mr. Trudeau could see the ad on his own Facebook page, but wouldn't know why it was excluded from their news feeds.

Facebook has promised new measures to make political ads more accessible. When it expands the initiative to the U.S., it will start building a searchable electronic archive of ads related to U.S. federal elections. This archive will include details on the amount of money spent and demographic information about the people the ads reached. Facebook will initially limit its definition of political ads to those that "refer to or discuss a political figure" in a federal election, the company said.

The company hasn't said what, if any, archive will be created for ads for state and local contests, or for political ads in other countries. It has said it will eventually require political advertisers in other countries, and in state elections in the U.S., to provide more documentation, but it's not clear when that will happen.

Ads that aren't political will be available under the same system being tested in Canada now.

Even an archive of the sort Facebook envisions wouldn't solve the problems of misleading advertising on Facebook, Mr. Surman said. "It would be interesting to journalists and researchers trying to track this issue. But it won't help users make informed choices about what ads they see," he said. That's because users need more information alongside the ads they are seeing on their news feeds, not in a separate location, he said.

The Airbnb Citizen ad wasn't the only tactic that Airbnb adopted in an apparent attempt to sway Toronto City Council. It also packed the council galleries with supporters on the morning of the vote, according to The Globe and Mail. Still, its efforts appear to have been unsuccessful.

On Dec. 6, two days after a reader sent ProPublica the ad, the city council voted to keep people from renting a space that wasn't their primary residence and stop homeowners from listing units such as basement apartments.

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